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Why attitudes towards Poverty in Britian changed - politics and the poor

Updated on July 8, 2013
Charles Booth
Charles Booth

Poverty in Britain before 1906

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries British attitudes towards poverty changed dramatically. Up until this point poverty was viewed as though it were the poor persons fault and a problem which should not affect the upper classes. Their lack of honesty and tendency towards drinking and gambling were blamed for their poverty and this remained an unquestioned opinion until it was proved otherwise. Booth and Rowntree played a crucial part in changing the public and government opinions and actions towards those in poverty. There were other social reasons such as national efficiency and security, and political changes.

It was widely accepted that poverty was self-inflicted due to such immoral activities as excessively drinking and gambling. This strongly held opinion lead to the harsh treatment of the poor as it was thought that they should not be helped because it was neither the governments nor the upper class responsibility to help them; “heaven help those who help themselves” - Samuel Smiles. There were a few sections of society who were pitied enough to be given aid: the old, the young, and the sick; as each of these groups were helpless. There was also the Poor Law but to ask for help from it was not looked upon kindly by society. It was very difficult to get help under the poor law: people were deterred from doing so to save the government from having to hand out money. The help which was given was only available to a very small percentage of the public and meant for most entertaining the work/poorhouse. Entering the poorhouse was the last thing anybody wanted to do; it was laborious and often considered to be worse than a prison. Also, upon leaving the poorhouse you were unable to ever return so if you were to fall on hard times again you had to struggle alone. In 1894 however, the Liberal Outdoor Relief Act made some financial help outside the poorhouse available; but only those they expected to need help for a short period of time - it was offered to very few. Politicians were not tackling the actual causes of poverty which was mostly because there was no demand to do so from the voters. While ignorance to the problem of poverty remained there would be no need for anything to be done about it. The first proof of the poor state of Britain’s public health was proved around the time of the Boer War.

The Boer War, 1899-1902, revealed the poor state of the health of the nation. Many men volunteered for the army during the Boer was were unable to join due to poor health. Around 1 in 3 of all recruits failed the army medical examination. In some towns, such as Manchester, as many as 9/10 prospective recruits were rejected due to poor physical health.

In other words, two out of every three men willing to bear arms in the Manchester district are virtually invalids” - Arnold White.

These figures were worrying as it implied an unfit workforce as well as an unfit army. It took 400,000 British troops to win the war fighting against 35,000 Boer troops. This worried Britain greatly because it had been thought that the war would be over quickly but it took 3 years for it to be won. The poor state of the health of troops was blamed for this slow victory. Arnold White blamed the conditions in Britain’s towns saying they produced an unfit population. This poor physical health of the public was a worry for national efficiency as well as national security. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain was no longer the world’s strongest industrial nation. Countries such as Germany were taking over Britain in terms of industrial productivity. Germany differed from Britain in their treatment of the poor, in Germany there was a system of welfare benefits and old age pension. Britain’s desire to both keep up with Germany in national welfare and national efficiency only increased the desire to improve the governments role in helping the impoverished. Many believed that the only was to save Britain from declining national efficiency and national security was by using the government in making social reforms.

Arguably, the single most important preconditioned for the spate of social reforms…was the fear of the consequences of the unfit debilitated population” - Eric Evans.

Investigations into poverty took place around the time of the Boer war supporting the idea that poverty was the cause for poor health.

Charles Booth carried out an investigation into poverty in London between 1886 and 1903. Booth was a wealthy Liverpool ship-owner and began the investigation with the intention of proving that poverty was not as bad as it appeared; he concluded that it was much worse. He attempted to define true poverty through the creation and use of the ‘poverty line’. This line stated that £0.90 to £1.05 a week was the minimum for a family with three children; the level by which they were only able to scrape by, buying the necessities and no more. He found that 30.7% of people were below his poverty line; below the adequate level for bare survival. He showed that only 3% of the 30.7% below the poverty line were being helped by the poor law. Booth published his findings in “Life and Labour of the People in London” making information available to those ignorant of the poverty surrounding them.

Seebohm Rowntree wanted to see if poverty in York equalled that in London. It was thought that Booth’s findings were only so bad because of the investigation taking place in the large town of London. Rowntree was a committed Christian and so would have a great desire to help those in need; “help thy neighbour”. Rowntree was a member of a rich, chocolate manufacturer and would be just as aware of poverty as Booth had been when he began his investigation. Using Booth’s idea of the poverty line Rowntree identified two types of poverty: primary and secondary poverty. Primary poverty included those who did not have enough income to provide necessities for their family but who squandered it unwisely. Rowntree’s findings agreed with Booth’s in that around 1/3 of people in the average town in Britain lived in poverty. He showed that poverty was not just a problem in London but that it was a national problem. In 1901 he published his works in “Poverty, a Study of Town Life”. Both Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth were praised for their accurate methods of investigation making their findings wholly reliable and indisputable. Their findings affected politicians’ opinions and to some extent aided the move towards social reforms.

The newly found Labour Party threatened the standing of the Liberal and Conservative parties. The conservative party was the least threatened of the two as their target constituency was the rich upper-class whereas the Liberals targeted the middle and working classes. Labour wanted to take action in the form of social reforms using state interventionism to tackle poverty which was an idea the Liberal party took on so as to compete for the same voters as Labour. The growth of trade unions also threatened the Liberals and the working class, many of whom had recently received the vote, began to expect better and fairer representation from the government. There were also New Liberals who represent the greatly changing opinions of the Liberal Party. The Liberal party was beginning to change from the policy of Laissez-faire to the idea of limited state help for humanitarian reasons and to maintain its position as the party representing the majority of working-class voters.

There were many reasons for the changing attitudes towards poverty before 1906. In particular, the conclusive and undeniable evidence of poverty provided by both the poor state of health of those who attempted to recruit in the army during the Boer was and the investigations of Booth and Rowntree. The effect of poverty on the nation’s health and the implications for the state of the British economy was also significant. In this state, Britain’s ability to compete in industrial productivity and ability to protect itself in a conflict was in a poor state. The general public as a whole began to notice poverty a lot more and realised that it was not always the person’s own fault that they were poor. The old contempt for those impoverished began to fade and was replaced by a sense of responsibility to help, especially as it greatly affect the country as a whole. It is of no surprise therefore that the changing attitude to poverty forced liberal changes in the way poverty was handled from 1906.


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    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Certain things though like the NHS and similar institutions have become an expected prt of our society today; don't ever think these things will go and it was do to a greater understanding of poverty and eventually the Bevin report of the 5 causes of poverty that led to these supports poor members of society can rely on to survive.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      That's an interesting summary of certain aspects of the historical shift towards a model of social responsibility in British society that was moving beyond the idea of simple and private philanthropy.

      It is interesting to see how that fundamental idea of mutual responsibility and care that was enshrined in the creation of the welfare state after the second world war, is currently being eroded and its institutions dismantled. We seem, in that sense, to be travelling rapidly back in time.


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